Monday, February 03, 2014

Patagonia Part 10/ Mendoza Part 1 Bike and Wine Tour

OK, fine. Mendoza isn't really part of Patagonia. Get over it, it was part of the same trip!

After all this running around, hiking, exploring, kayaking, and bus ride after bus ride, I was ready to stay in one place for awhile, so I booked a whole week in Mendoza. It was really nice to be in one place that long. I didn't feel like I had to pack every day with every activity and experience I could fit in, and I could afford to have some lazy days-yet I still did a ton of stuff. It was a perfect last leg of five weeks traveling. I was there long enough, and was busy enough, that I'll need several posts to cover it all.

My first activity in Mendoza was the most obvious: a bike and wine tour! The hostel I stayed at arranged tours and this one included 3 wineries (tour and tasting) and short bike rides in between.
The first vineyard, Tapiz, was the most extensive, giving lots of
information about the whole process.

Here is vineyard #2,  Dolium.

Vineyard #3, Norton, was enor
For some reason, we were greeted at Norton with glasses of champagne. Not what I expected, but who am I to complain?

See? Gigantic. Looking in the other direction was the same amount of vats on the other side too.

Norton had this creepy dark basement where they age all their wine. For such a big, "modern" looking place, the basement was old school. Everything was dusty and the only way to identify the year/type of wine was by signs. 

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Patagonia, Part 9: Back to Bariloche and onwards to Mendoza...or, I Live On a Long Distance Bus

When I left you, dear readers, I was holding on for dear life in the brutal Patagonian wind, looking for a place to spend the night. Okay, maybe it wasn't that bad. But it was pretty bad.

Anyway I got to the bus station in El Chalten after the bus out of town had already boarded and I had to ask the bus driver to find me the ticket seller so I could get on! Predictably, she was taking a break, but luckily it was a break with the bus driver. Anyhoo I got a ticket and had a couple hours to relax and thaw out on the way back to Calafate. It is kind of nice, when traveling, to get to a city that is even the slightest bit familiar. Apparently the downside of that is that I didn't take a single picture this time. Oops. Even though I only spent 2 nights in Calafate I knew the main street and was able to find my new hotel easily. Did you notice I said hotel? Not hostel? Well I decided it was time to splurge a little bit and I sure did enjoy the luxury of not only my own room but also my own bathroom. Ahhhh. Although I had to venture out and eat, I mostly reveled in having all this space to myself. And had them do my laundry. Fellow travelers know that can be a big deal. And actually, they had hostel rooms as well, but I can't speak to the quality of those.

After my night of rest and solitude, I took a good long run in the morning, and then I was back at the bus station for the 30-hour trip back up to Bariloche! And I pretty much did nothing there as it rained the whole. entire. time. I was there. But I met some really great people at the hostel I stayed at, and continued drinking great Patagonia beer, just like the first time I was there. But it was a good chance to just rest. Then I got on ANOTHER long bus ride (this one "only" 14 hours!) to head to Mendoza. This company was way better. We actually played a whole-bus bingo game. And there was wine with dinner. This is where a normal person would put the name of the bus line so someone else could use this information. But I can't remember it. =( Sorry, fellow nomads.

STAY (Calafate)
This time I stayed at a place called Albergue & Hostal del Glacier Libertador. It was a little confusing because it's two separate places about a block apart, and I didn't know which one I was booking when I booked online. I believe I stayed in the Albergue site.
PROS-the private room was nice, clean, and reasonably spacious. It was also a pretty good deal. The location is good too, you're just outside of the town area and it's an easy walk to the main street or bus station. Wifi was so-so, and better in the common room. Breakfast was also average, which is to say not that great, but I've had worse. They also book a lot of tours-but I didn't use them so can't evaluate them! They have a full kitchen for guests, which is nice with a regular hotel room. It was crowded and not stocked especially well, and you had to pay a deposit for silverware. But at least it was SOMETHING, to avoid going out for a meal.
CONS-I was happy with my stay here. The common areas aren't great, although they do have a little TV room. If I was staying longer than a night I probably would have gotten bored as it seemed it would be hard to meet people.

For my other recommendations about El Calafate, you can click here.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Patagonia, Part 8: El Chalten, Argentina

El Chalten, Argentina. Trekking capital of Argentina. Home of Fitz Roy. Need I say more? This picture sums up why I needed to go here!

A 3 hour bus ride from El Calafate brought me here. One interesting thing is that the bus stops at the national park office and it is mandatory to get off and go in and listen to a talk-either in English or Spanish-about the park, safety, and keeping it clean. They pretty much figure if you came to El Chalten, you are going to be spending time outdoors. So we got our talk, suggestions about hikes, and trail maps. I felt ready! It was an absolutely gorgeous, perfect day: a fact that I appreciated even more after the next 2 days here! The bus took us the last few minutes into town. I checked into my hostel, and they recommended that I take a short hike to take advantage of the weather. I did as suggested and hiked up to a nearby overlook where you could see the town of El Chalten as well as the famous Fitz Roy and surrounding range. I also went to a nearby overlook the other way, at some pretty lakes. Did I mention it was a beautiful day??

The clouds were always doing crazy things.
 Back in town I got some groceries, tried out the local cerveceria, made dinner, and talked to fellow hostellers. The next morning I got up at my leisure. In Colorado, I've gotten accustomed to getting up really early when planning a long hike. This is because of the well-known 3pm thunderstorms. Things were a little more relaxed here: apparently it will rain whenever it darn well pleases, and I was so far south it was light until about 10:30 pm, so there really was no rush to get anywhere. It was kind of nice! I cooked breakfast, made some sandwiches, and headed out. It was reasonably sunny but really, really windy. Once I walked through town and started hiking, I was a little bit more sheltered, but I was still quite bundled up! Fitz Roy never made quite the appearance of the previous day, but was always peeking out of the clouds.

See how much colder I look than the previous day?
My first "destination" was Laguna Capri. From there I decided to head to camp Poincenot. I continued on past that camp for awhile to get a better view of a glacier and waterfall. At that point, I decided that I'd really had enough of the relentless wind, and decided to head back into town. It was a pretty easy hike overall, but I ended up going about 20 km (12 miles) round trip that day, so I was happy with that. I had heard that the next major stop, Laguna Los Tres, was up a really steep, intense trail, and I wasn't planning on anything that difficult.

Laguna Capri

You can drink right out of the streams here! Makes for a much lighter pack. =)

See what I mean about the clouds?

El Chalten from above

Look closely.
Once back in El Chalten, I (of course) had to find a place for an after-hike beverage! After a tasty beer in a place with a mind-blowing selection, I headed back to my hostel, cooked dinner (more pasta!), and conked out! The next day was, if possible, even windier. As in, I have never experienced wind this strong in my life-and that's saying something. I grew up in a pretty windy place. Unfortunately, I'd only reserved 2 nights in my hostel and they were booked for the night so I walked all through town asking places if they had any rooms, with no luck. Finally, I begged a hostel owner to let me use his wifi, which he did, and I booked a room back in El Calafate, and then raced to the bus station to get the bus out of town. I really enjoyed the little town of El Chalten: it had a lot of character (even if it was touristy) and was in one of the most beautiful settings I've been. But oh, the wind!!

Well you probably won't just magically find yourself in El Chalten on the way to somewhere else. You pretty much go there on purpose, and the purpose most likely is to hike. So that's what you should do when you get here. Hike. And if you want, camp too. In the park there are campsites but you have to stay at them, you can't just pitch your tent anywhere. Just beware that although my weather was not ideal, it was far better than for many others....rain, snow, and hail are normal here any time of the year! So be prepared to hike in crappy weather or hunker down somewhere!

Speaking of hunkering, there are a few great places to do so. The one I enjoyed the most just had the wooden sign "CERVECERIA" out front. The one with the million bottles of beer was actually advertised as a wine place. It's easy to walk the main streets and pop into any number of cute places for a meal or drink. I actually cooked almost all my meals at the hostel so didn't try any restaurants for food.

I stayed at a not-that-cute on the outside, but really pretty nice hostel here called La Comarca Hostel. I liked it.
PROS-it's small and doesn't accept groups, so you are likely to meet others in the kitchen and dining area. It's comfortable because you get to know the people staying there, and it's not that awkward sleeping in the same room with strangers thing you sometimes have (or maybe that's just me). The owner is really, really nice, and knowledgeable about local hikes. It's across the street from the bus station.
CONS-Not many. It's not much to look at on the outside, but who cares? There's no outside space, but it was never really nice enough for that anyway. It's on the outside of town but the town is so small that doesn't matter much. The kitchen is a bit small and crowded, and they don't serve breakfast, which is the norm in El Chalten--I didn't care, it gave me an excuse to cook eggs instead of eat yet more bread!

NOTE(S): El Chalten is a small town and places fill up FAST in peak season. Book ahead. Most places I went, I booked for 2 nights and booked additional nights as needed. I couldn't do that here. Also, bring cash, whether Argentinian pesos or US dollars. I got a better exchange rate in Bariloche, but several places were willing to accept/change US dollars here. There's one ATM at the bus station and the line is always really long-if it is working.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Patagonia Part 7: Perito Moreno Glacier

So if you find yourself in Calafate, the only thing to really do is see the nearby Perito Moreno Glacier. That is why people go there, prettymuch. There are tons of organized tours with all variety of activities, but I just bought a bus ticket and checked it out on my own.

It is an amazing, beautiful place. The glacier is moving forward at about 6 feet a day, and the coolest thing is watching and hearing big chunks "calve" off into the lake.

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

You can see from the water that the glacier recently calved here 

I kept waiting all day for this piece to break off, but it didn't!

For some reason I love signs warning of danger.

You can see in the lake where all the glacier pieces collect. Sometimes they completely block the water
flow from the lake on the left to the lake on the right, and it's quite a show when the "dam" busrts!

When people asked what I wanted to do for the summer break (a popular topic of conversation amongst us traveling teachers) I said, "I want to see lakes and mountains and glaciers and beautiful places." Check!

Patagonia Part 6: Long Bus Rides and El Calafate

When we woke up the morning after the hike in El Bolson, it was raining pretty hard. I felt like I timed it just right, if it's going to rain all day I might as well be on a bus, right? I got a cab into town and hung out at the bus station/travel place. I was a little nervous, this was to be my first REALLY long haul ride: to leave at 11am and arrive at 1pm the following day. What would I DO for all that time? What if I sat next to someone who smelled bad or something? All I could do was download some new books on my kindle, buy a bottle of wine, charge all my devices, and hope for the best.

It was a long time. But it wasn't *that* bad. I did a lot of reading, sudoku puzzles, logic puzzles, sleeping, movie-watching, eating, and sleeping more. The bus class for pretty much all long-hauls is "cama" which means bed. The seats are big and do recline really far back, and have more than adequate leg room for my short self. But they don't go totally flat and it's not "like a real bed." It also depends on the bus line what amenities you'll get. Unfortunately, only one company goes from Bariloche to El Calafate so it's not like there is a choice. This is unfortunate, because this particular bus line does NOT serve alcohol, unlike the stories I've heard from other bus travelers who had an array of delicious choices to help their ride along. When it became apparent that I was not going to be offered anything after dinner except ultra-sweet coffee, I asked for a cup for my wine. The following is my exchange with the waiter-on-a-bus type guy (translated into English for your reading convenience): "A cup, please"
"A cup of what?"
"Just a cup."
"Water, tea, coffee?"
"Just a cup."
"For my wine." For the record, everywhere in South America is open container. Drinking in public, on a bus, in the streets walking around, or basically anywhere is just not a big deal. Which is why I wasn't secretive about my intentions. So I was really surprised by his response that it wasn't allowed. But I accepted it and went back to my book. About 20 minutes later, he came, accompanied by another attendant and a styrofoam cup. He handed it to me, said "solamente un pocito" (only a little bit) and he and the other guy watched me pour a cup of wine. I don't know was weird.

Anyway fast forward about 20 hours and I finally arrived in El Calafate. Getting off the bus, I realized how far south I'd actually gone because it was cold! After buying a bus ticket for the next morning, cabbing it to my hostel and unpacking, I set off to explore the town-and my first stop was to buy a winter hat and gloves! I set off to find a cerveceria I'd seen on the map (hmm, anyone noticing a theme?). I found it and loved it because I sat down and before they even came to take my order or bring a menu, they brought me peanuts and samples of their 3 microbrews! That was exciting. I ended up staying there for dinner as well.

El Calafate itself isn't really much of a destination, but it's very well traveled by tourists for one reason: Los Glaciares Parque Nacional. That was my destination for the next morning so I got my things packed and got to bed early so I'd be ready for it!

Go to the glacier (see my next post for more on that).

I stayed at a place called Marco Polo Inn (not to be confused with Hotel Marco Polo, by the way. I'll take this opportunity to mention that really, hostel/hotel reviews are pretty subjective because for ME, my experience at a place is based almost totally on who I meet while I'm there. And from one day to the next, you could have a completely different experience. That's kind of how this place was. The first day, everyone was gone (to the glacier no doubt) when I arrived, so I took a shower and wandered around town-no problem. The next night, all but one person in my dorm had left and a new group of 5 Australian guys were staying there. They were really nice, but taking showers and getting ready to go out, playing loud music until after midnight, then came back falling down drunk when I was eating breakfast at 7am the next day. Totally different experience. Anyway here's my review of the place.
PROS-decent location (but take a taxi from the bus station the first time, hard to find). Nice enough dorms and staff. OK kitchen, OK breakfast. Nice common area with a big dining area, TV, and pool table.
CONS-nothing was bad but nothing really stood out either. They were pretty disorganized though, both days the wrong beds were stripped down even when it was obvious someone was still there. It's annoying to have to remake your bed (and have someone else try to sleep in it) 2 nights in a row because they don't have it straight!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Patagonia, Part 5: El Bolson, Argentina: Beer and trekking

After the hustle and bustle of Bariloche (okay, it wasn't that bad), El Bolson was a welcome change. It is kind of a hippie town, lots smaller and more art-sy, but still with good beer. Adrianne and I were down with that. The first night there we stayed less than a mile apart, as we couldn't get into the same hostel. We walked into town--all the nice places to stay are outside of town--and hit up the local artisan market, including a street/busker show, ARTISAN BEER, and various neat things that I did not have room for in my suitcase. We missed the bus so decided to check out a cerveceria while we waited for the next bus. It was not so bad.

That night we had dinner at her hostel, which was yummy and fancy homemade pasta and the hostel's homebrew. Dang, do these South Americans love their carbs or what? But it was good to carbo-load, we had a hike the next day.

The next day: we teamed up with a lady from Wales, a guy from Australia, and a girl from London to do a hike called Cajon del Azul. You have to take a longish cab ride from town to the beginning of the trail. The first mile-plus is a really steep downhill 4-wheel drive road. Then you get to the pretty river, the first bar (I knew I was going to love this) and two Non Mother Approved super shady wooden bridges. I mean, SHADY. There were missing boards, boards that cracked when you stepped on them, long dropoffs below, and swaying. I'm not afraid of heights; I felt way safer crossing that rope bridge in Peru though.

Anyhoo, after that crossing we did a great hike. I liked it because unlike Colorado, there were ups and downs mixed up. And later on, safer bridges. And more opportunities to drink beer. And beautiful blue water. And fun new friends. What more could a girl ask for, really?

So after about 4 hours we made it to our destination, which was one of the refugios. These are half-lodge, half-restaurant. A lot of people stay in them overnight, but you can also just stop for a meal. We brought PBJs (duh, Americans) but we ate pizza and beer instead. Yum! 
After that we took a loop back to the trail that had some steep dropoffs to the river below where we could (kind of) see some guys diving around down there, and we did some scrambling over rocks to arrive at this GORGEOUS water. I mean, the pictures don't really do justice to just how clean and beautiful the water was here. 

Then we hiked back.
Then we had beer.

Then we paid a guy with a big vehicle to drive us home, including the last mile of steep steep road. I felt like a genius.